Book Review: Michael Wittmer, The Bible Explainer

Wittmer, Michael. The Bible Explainer: Questions and Answers on Origins, the Old Testament, Jesus, the End Times, and More. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour, 2020. 464 pp.; Pb.; $19.99. Link to Barbour Books   Link to Amazon

In the introduction to this new book from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary professor Michael Wittmer, the publishers explain the Explainer as simple answers to common questions about the Bible. The book is like a “frequently asked questions” page for the Bible and basic Christian theology. Many of these questions and answers clear up misunderstandings about the Bible and Christian theology, others are concise summaries of Christian beliefs.

Wittmer, Bible ExplainerThe book is divided into six parts. The first part covers eighty questions on “Bible Basics: What it is and how we should read it.” Some of these questions are good for new believers opening a Bible for the first time, such as “why does the Bible have chapters and verses” and “why are some letters red?” “What’s a Study Bible?” “What about translations?” Others are more apologetic in nature, such as “How were the original Bible writings preserved?” The answer, “they weren’t.” What follows is about a page on how copies of ancient books were made. A few questions deal with authorship questions. For example, “Did Moses write the Pentateuch?” and “Who wrote Isaiah?” Three related questions (36-38) deal with the truth of the Bible; question 41 asks, “What should I do if I think I’ve found an error?” Question 54 lays out a simple four-point method for understanding any Bible passage and several other questions and answers focus on reading various genres in the Bible. For example, question 64, “What’s up with the Song of Solomon?” The final line of the answer is, “take a cold shower.” Questions 75 and 75 lay out six steps in applying biblical passages to one’s personal life.

The second part concerns Origins: Where everything comes from (forty-six questions). Much of this section is what might be called theology proper, with questions on Trinity and the nature of God. He answers why, when and how God created the world. In question 92, Wittmer compares four views of creation, noting both strengths and weaknesses of each view. This section also tackles Adam and Eve, Sin and the Fall, the origin of Satan and the fallen angels, and the problem of evil. The section covers many questions people have about the flood and the events after the flood. Wittmer also gives an answer for where Cain got his wife and whether (or not) the angels had sex with humans.

In part three, Wittmer answers questions on Israel and why the Old Testament matters today (thirty questions). If Part two covered Genesis 1-11, part three covers the seep of Israel’s history from Abraham (Genesis 12) to the years just prior to Jesus in about sixty pages.  Some are questions of basic facts, such as “Why are God’s people called Hebrews, Israel and Jews”? or “Who is Yahweh?” to more difficult theological problems such as “did God command Israel to commit genocide?” The section has several matters of application of the Law, such as “what does the Bible teach about” issues like immigration, homosexuality, polygamy, or slavery? Wittmer deals with the very common criticism of Christianity, “Why do Christians follow the Old Testaments teaching on homosexuality bit not its commands about eating bacon and shrimp?” And yes, I caught the allusion to Ron Swanson: “bacon wrapped shrimp.”

Part four concerns Jesus: who he is and what he means (forty questions). This unit is more theological than the first three, beginning with “who is Jesus?” and “Was Jesus divine?” Wittmer deals with several questions about Jesus’s teaching such as was Jesus a pacifist, a feminist, socialist, or a racist?  (He answers “Was Jesus married” with a simple, one-word answer. You will need to buy the book to find out what it is.)

The fifth part of the book covers a range of theological questions on “how the New testament affects our world” (thirty-two questions), but the primary focus of the section is what the church believes and how the church functions today. For example, he defines grace, salvation, faith, repentance, adoption, and prayer (although there are no questions and answers on justification by faith, redemption, reconciliation). He also defines key terms used frequently in churches a new believer may not fully understand, such as sacrament, baptism, Lord’s supper.  Several questions in this section clear up misunderstandings about what the church is. “Does God want my money?” Does God want to take away my fun?” There are a few controversial issues here, such as women in ministry, speaking in tongues, and how Christians ought to relate to their government.

The last section concerns the end times, heaven and hell. At only seventeen questions, this is by far the shortest section, although questions these topics could fill an entire book. More than half of these deal with heaven and hell. He defines millennium, rapture, antichrist, Armageddon and the significance of 666 (no, it is not who you are thinking…) For most of these he compares and contrasts the views of dispensationalism and amillennialism and he treats both sides fairly. But the most important things for Wittmer are the “three Rs: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the restoration of all things” (438).

Occasionally he sneaks an extra question into the book, for example, “What are BCE and CE” (page 48). There are two-pages each on the Roman Catholic Church vs. Protestant church and the Western church vs. the Eastern church. Since these are not phrased in the form of a question, they are not counted as one of the 250 questions. Wittmer has a sense of wry humor, and this comes through in his answers. For example, “the Bible is a big book. It’s much larger than Cool Dads of Teenagers or The Wisdom of Daytime Television, though it is still roughly 30% smaller than the Harry Potter series” (18). In discussing how Christians ought to relate to their government, “I’m looking at you America.”

Conclusion. The Bible Explainer is an excellent book for a new or young believer who has questions about the content of the whole Bible. It would make an excellent supplement to a basic discipleship class in a local church or a supplement for a small group Bible study or a handy reference for Sunday school teachers. Although Wittmer includes plenty of Scripture in his answers, the book may be even more useful if each question (or group of questions) concluded with suggestions for further reading.

NB: Thanks to Barbour Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, Micah

Hoyt, JoAnna M. Amos, Jonah, & Micah. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 850 pp.; Hb.; $54.99. Link to Lexham Press

JoAnna Hoyt is visiting professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and an adjunct professor at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics. This new exegetical commentary is a major contribution to the study of these three minor prophets.

Joanna Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, MicahIn the twenty-eight-page introduction to Amos, Hoyt offers a standard overview of the authorship, date, setting and audience of the book. The introduction includes about 20 pages on intertextual issues, including possible allusions to Amos in in Joel and Jeremiah and a brief comment on the quotation of Amos in Acts 15. After a summary of the theology of Amos she turns to the style in genres used by the book. There is nothing particularly controversial in this summary. However, in her section on the unity of Amos she summarizes various redactional theories, especially Hans Walter Wolff’s complex theory found in his Hermenia commentary on Amos (Fortress, 1977). Hoyt concludes, “The proposal that portions of Amos are late additions is based on criteria that cannot be substantiated” (23). The introduction concludes with a lengthy discussion of various suggested outlines for the book of Amos, and exegetical outline, and selected bibliography. A more detailed bibliography appears at the end of each commentary section.

The introduction to Jonah is much more extensive (about seventy-five pages). Authorship is problematic for the book of Jonah; Hoyt herself consider is it at least possible Jonah wrote the book himself, but it is more likely the author is an anonymous third-party who lived “during Jonah’s lifetime or at some later point” (339). She provides two pages setting Jonah into the context of 1 Kings 14 and deals in detail with the problem of when the story was actually written. Here she follows John Walton and dismisses Aramaisms as requiring a late date. Intertextual connections with Joel may be more important, but it must be admitted the date of Joel is not certain either. After providing several pages on the historical setting of the book of Jonah and the end of the Syrian empire, she surveys several doubts scholars have about the historicity of Jonah. Most of these doubts center on the city of Nineveh, and why God would send an Israelite prophet like Jonah to Nineveh in the first place. These doubts also include the problem of three nights in a fish.

She cites approvingly Douglas Stewart who concluded “it is important to note that there is ample evidence to support the historicity of the book, and surprisingly a little to undermine it” (364). But of course, a fictional story could be set into a proper historical context, and the story could still be true. This leads to the very difficult problem of genre. Hoyt surveys and critiques suggestions including historical narrative, novella, parable, allegory, and midrash. The increasingly popular view of Wolff that Jonah is a parody or satire. A few have considered the book to be a fairy tale or a fable. Even the psalm in Jonah 2 has been identified as either a thanksgiving or lament, and possibly also satire. Ultimately, Hoyt concludes the book should be read as a historical narrative with satirical elements (377).

In the thirty-two-page introduction to Micah, Hoyt places Micah in the eighth century, responding to the last years of the northern kingdom and kings Ahaz and Hezekiah in Judah. The all of Samarian in 722 B.C. and the Assyrian Invasion in 701 B.C. for the main context for the book. As with Amos, there are several suggestions to explain the so-called hope oracles scattered through the book. For some, their presence shows either a late date for the entire book or a later revision of the book during the exile.

In the commentary’s body each section begins with an introduction followed by an outline. She then provides a fresh translation with textual notes, followed by a verse-by-verse commentary. Hebrew appears in the text of the commentary without transliteration. Matters of technical Hebrew grammar and syntax are found in the footnotes. Each unit ends with a selected bibliography of journal articles or other resources pertaining to the unit. If there is a difficult syntactical or lexical problem in the unit, she will include an excursus, “Additional Exegetical Comment.” Readers without Hebrew can skip these sections without too much loss. Chapter units in with very short Biblical Theology comments, followed by Application and Devotional Implications.

Each commentary ends with an excursus. For Jonah, Hoyt examines Jesus’ mention of the Ninevites in Matthew 12:41/Luke 11:32. In Micah, she has a two-page excursus on high places and three pages on Migdal-eder, the Birth of the Messiah and Christian Myth in Micah 4:8. This is the belief that near Bethlehem there was a special flock of sheep set aside for cultic use at the temple. Pastors often try this special flock of sheep to the shepherds in Luke 2. Although this makes for a great sermon illustration at Christmas time, it is not based on facts. It probably entered popular preaching through Alfred Edersheim’s Life of Jesus the Messiah (1896).

Hoyt interacts with a wide range of secondary literature. As expected by the use of evangelical in the commentary series title, her conclusions are more conservative, although she fully interacts with major English commentaries and monographs on these three prophets.

As with other volumes of this series, Lexham published the commentary simultaneously in print and in the Logos Bible Software. The Logos book takes advantage of all the resources of the software, including tagging cross references and links to other resources when available. To date, there are thirteen commentaries in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary available to Logos users, with a total of forty-four volumes planned. The series has been redesigned with new covers and Andreas Köstenberger is now the editor of the New Testament. Purchase all thirteen volumes at 20% off through the Lexham website or subscribe to the series and receive new volumes as they are published.

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book, both in print and Logos format. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi

Verhoef, Pieter A. The Books of Haggai and Malachi. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 364 pp. Pb; $40.   Link to Eerdmans

Pieter Verhoef’s commentary on Haggai and Malachi was originally published in 1987 as part of the NICOT series. Verhoef was replaced in the series by Mignon R. Jacobs in 2017 (reviewed here). Still a valuable and oft-cited commentary, Eerdmans has moved this to their Classic Bible Commentaries series.

The Haggai commentary runs about 150 pages, Malachi about 200 pages. Since Verhoef is South African scholar he interacts with more South African, Dutch, and German secondary literature than most commentaries published in North America. Most of the bibliography pre-dates 1984, but this is less of a problem since there have been only a few major commentaries in the last 35 years on these two obscure prophetic books. Until Mignon R. Jacobs replacement volume in the NICOT, the best commentaries for these books were Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers on Haggai and Andrew E. Hill on Malachi (both in the Anchor series), Richard A. Taylor on Haggai and Malachi (NAC) and Hans Walter Wolff  in the Continental series (published in 1986 in German; 1987 in English).

For both books, Verhoef provides an introduction with the usual introductory material. Not much can be said about the prophets as individuals, and Malachi may not even be the name of the prophet (the name means “my messenger” and can be understood as a title rather than a personal name). For both books Verhoef deals with matters of authorship and unity, concluding the books do reflect the preaching of a real prophet and arguing for the unity of the over against source-critical theories.

Verhoef places each book into the context of Ezra-Nehemiah. For Haggai, he is active prior to the restoration of the Temple and his prophecies are dated to 520 B.C. For Verhoef, Malachi is likely the last prophetic voice in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet was active between the two visits of Nehemiah, shortly after 433 B.C. In his sketches of the background of these two prophets, Verhoef provides the necessary context to understand the prophetic encouragement to restore the Temple and for the people to devote themselves to wholehearted obedience.

The body of the commentary begins each section with a translation of the pericope with detailed notes on the text (citing variations found in the LXX, Peshitta, Targumim and Vulgate). A short section follows setting the pericope into the context of the book, then Verhoef proceeds through the text phrase-by-phrase. All Hebrew appears in transliteration and he often deals with matters of syntax and grammar. Footnotes cite secondary literature, although he often agrees with various commentaries on a particular issue.

One of the main problems in Haggai is the status of Zerubbabel as the Lord’s signet ring (Hag 2:20-23). These final words of the book are often described as an apocalyptic hope for the restoration of the kingdom of David. If this is true, then Haggai appears to be a failed prophet since there is no restoration of a Davidic Kingdom and Zerubbabel more or less disappears from the history after 520. Verhoef deals with this problem by reading Haggai 2:20-23 as a kind of typology foreshadowing the first and second coming of Christ (p. 149).

Verhoef reads these two prophets from a Christian perspective, often drawing some conclusion at the end of a section which illuminates the New Testament. Some scholars would say Haggai has no Christian theology, a view Verhoef strenuously denies. For example, in dealing with marriage and divorce in Malachi 2:10-16, he comments briefly on Jesus’s view of divorce in Matthew 19 as well as Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and the “profound mystery of marriage” in Ephesians 5:22-33.  Although these short conclusions are not really “guides for preaching Haggai,” they do serve as canonical bridges, opening up the possibility of a Christian reading of these two prophetic books.

There are not many exegetical commentaries on Haggai or Malachi. Unfortunately commentaries in the Minor Prophets are often brief and published in one or two volumes. Although now an older work, Verhoef’s commentary on these two overlooked prophets remains a valuable resource for students of the Minor Prophets and the early post-exilic period.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: Jerome, Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets, Volume 1

Scheck, Thomas, ed. Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets: Volume 1, Ancient Christian Texts by Jerome. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. Link to IVP

This new contribution to the Ancient Christian Texts series is the first of three volumes collecting Jerome’s commentaries on the twelve Minor Prophets. Jerome (c. 347-419/20) is primarily known for his Latin translation of the Bible (The Vulgate), but he was also a prolific commentator on biblical books. He was thoroughly familiar with Jewish traditions and brought them to bear on his understanding of the Old Testament. Beginning in 379, Jerome used his considerable linguistic skills to translate Origen’s commentaries and, eventually, to translate and comment on Scripture himself.

Image result for Scheck, Thomas, ed. Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets: Volume 1,According to the introduction, in 392 Jerome wrote his commentary on Nahum, the first of his commentaries on the twelve Minor Prophets. In the next year he finished commentaries Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai and Habakkuk, Jonah and Obadiah were completed in 396 following the Originist Controversy. In the mid-390s a petition circulated to have Origen declared a heretic. Although he translated Origen’s work and was an advocate of his work, Jerome signed this petition and became an outspoken opponent of Origen. Scheck says this can be seen by “occasional outbursts” against origin in the commentaries beginning with Jonah. Nevertheless, Jerome possessed Origen’s twenty-five book commentary on the Minor Prophets “which I hug and guard with such joy, that I deem myself to have the wealth of Croesus” (xxii).

The commentaries are presented in the order Jerome wrote them and a table in the introduction identifies the year he completed each commentary (xvi) and a second table includes order of the commentaries along with Jerome’s other commentaries and his translations of Origen. In preparing these commentaries, Jerome used the text of the Hebrew Bible as his main source, but also the LXX and Origin’s commentaries on the Minor Prophets. The translations were originally made by classics students from Ave Maria University under the direction of Thomas Scheck. The original translators are identified at the head of each commentary. Scheck carefully edited these translations into the final form found in this volume.

A key feature of Jerome’s commentaries is his frequent allusion to both the Old and New Testament. These are identified in the notes and virtually every pages of this volume has at least several allusions to biblical texts. As Scheck suggests, Jerome understood as a unity and thought the best commentary on Scripture is Scripture itself (xxiv). Following Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Bible he usually gives the Septuagint, commenting on any differences. For example, commenting on Zephaniah 2:3-4, Jerome translates the Hebrew “Seek the Lord, all you meek of the earth, you who have worked his judgment, seek the just seek the meek,” and the LXX as “seek the Lord, all the humble of the earth, work judgment and seek justice.” The LXX reading is interpreted as a reference to “no one else by Christ” because everyone who seeks him will find him, citing Matthew 7:8. This is typical of the commentaries, they are thoroughly Christocentric.

An important feature of this volume is the indices. The first collects references in the text (and footnotes) to historical allusions (the Ebionites, Origen, etc.) or to other translations (Symmachus and Theodotion, for example).  There are about ten pages ion the Scripture including allusions to Sirach.

Aside from historical interests, what is the value of reading a 1600 year old commentary on the Minor Prophets? There are a number of allegorical interpretations which attempt to focus a text on Christ or the church which seem to go well beyond the results of a grammatical historical method. For example, commenting on Haggai 2:19-20, Jerome take the pomegranate as a reference to the church. In order to make this point, he alludes to the Song of Solomon 8:1, the bride’s cheeks are compared to a pomegranate and the bride in the Song is allegorical interpreted as the Church. The olive tree in Haggai 2:20 refers to the illumination of Scripture, presumably because olive oil was used in lamps. Modern interpreters would be content to (correctly) read Haggai 2:19-20 as a reference to prosperity returning to the land (when pomegranates and olive trees will flourish again).

This may be an extreme example, but Jerome’s method of reading a given text alongside other texts is a kind of Christological intertextuality which flattens the canon and often creates observations which would be ignored by the traditional grammatical historical method. Perhaps there is good reason to draw two or three texts together as Jerome does, but sometimes the interpretations are strained beyond what my modern mind can bear.

Nevertheless, IVP Academic is to be applauded for once again providing these commentaries to English readers. Like other volumes in the series, the book itself is well-designed and reader friendly.

 

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.